Emphasizing Wellness and Humanity in an Onrush of Innovation


1-idealab-icon-imageHow do we design human-focused spaces for a world that is becoming increasingly automated? It’s a gnawing question for architects, now and in an inevitable technological future. SmithGroupJJR has been studying how such technological disruption, along with other socio-economic, demographic and environmental disruptions, will impact our response to our client’s business needs in the near and long-term future. I recently took part in SmithGroupJJR’s IdeaLab: we were challenges to understand how artificial intelligence (AI) might impact the future design of healthcare facilities (you can read another post about this effort by my colleague Stephen Parker here).

The IdeaLab challenge consisted of three teams of talented individuals spanning several offices across the country. Each team focused on designing and planning a future AI-run clinic for a fictional persona; in our case, a 68-year old assembly plant retiree living in the Midwest who was a healthcare avoider. We spent a good deal of time asking ourselves not only what his future world might look like, but also what would motivate this individual to come to this space for routine and preventative care.

Part of thinking about the future involves examining present trends and extrapolating them into possible alternative scenarios. I recently attended Data Innovation Day at the Center for Data Innovation in Washington, DC, where speakers from Google, Microsoft, and the federal government discussed automation and public policy. The speakers emphasized the difference between current, narrow artificial intelligence like machine learning versus the still fictional artificial general intelligence. Much of the conversation was underscored by the real progress that has been made in the creation of machine learning algorithms and computer systems that can simulate aspects of human cognition. And yet, despite the enormous potential benefits of these technologies, they also come with unintended consequences that must be addressed by the public and private sector.

(The Impact of Technology’s Invisible Hand, Epoch Times, October 2016)There is a pervasive anxiety rolling across the economies of the West: concerns about an economic secular stagnation. Despite these fears, productivity continues to march forward, powered by advances in robotics, nanotechnology, genetics, and artificial intelligence. We’re doing more with less, but this also means we are creating a ‘winner take all’ world where compensation for labor is limited to a shrinking pool of individuals, as this chart reveals in the Epoch Times’ fascinating report on The Impact of Technology’s Invisible Hand.

There is a real concern that a ‘fourth industrial revolution‘ of artificial intelligence and robotics will destroy more jobs than it creates. Just as mechanization replaced and augmented human labor on farms, the technologies of today are poised to automate much of what we know as knowledge work. The tasks which were once within the impenetrable domain of human cognition are no longer insulated from automation. Policymakers around the world are struggling to devise a response to this sea change, whether through strengthening the safety net or providing a basic income for citizens; a sort of venture capital for the people.

It is in this context of rapid and disruptive change that our IdeaLab team generated a concept for a healthcare setting, one that incorporates the benefits of automation and technology but with a focus on individual wellness and human interaction. We have recognized that artificial intelligence is projected to replace routine knowledge jobs in the near term and therefore the space we allocate for diagnostic support work is relatively small compared to other functions in the building. Fewer medical professionals are needed to staff this facility, which may be a benefit to rural communities struggling to fill these jobs.

In our clinic of the future, much of the diagnostic and treatment procedures will be run behind the scenes as cloud-based machine learning programs (such as IBM’s Watson) analyze data provided through wearable technology. Much of this monitoring could be done remotely, but we wanted to create a place that people would want to visit so that they could be more active participants in their own healthcare. We created a space that integrated a variety of uses into one building with clinic functions running in the background, similar to mechanical and electrical systems in today’s buildings.

3-idealab-clinic-space-diagramOur concept focuses on integrating these four components into the clinic space:

  1. Wellness: A spa-like facility that promotes healthy lifestyles and healthy eating.
  2. Social Interaction: Programs that encourage social interaction, if desired, focused around a central ‘town square.’
  3. Continuing Education: An open workshop area that provides hands-on activities and continuing education rooms.
  4. Entertainment: Gaming, fitness, and recreation are also incorporated into the design.

We don’t expect this to be the end of the conversation concerning the clinic of the future. Rather this is the start of a discussion about how technology might change our built environment, and how the built environment might contribute to a more equitable and human-focused society. Technological progress is now enabling remarkable advances in medicine and many other industries, but it is also rapidly reshaping the traditional order of the world we live in. If we are on the verge of solving the ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ as many futurists predict, we will be faced with many apparently intractable issues.

Policies are urgently needed to address the impacts of technology’s invisible hand, but as designers and planners we can take part in creating a more equitable and healthy world. The buildings and cities we design in the future should use technological advances to lift all individuals and not just a select few. After all, we are all part of what Buckminster Fuller called Spaceship Earth, and though today we are able to do much more with less, we should be cognizant of the externalities that ‘more’ entails.

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